The Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013, shortly after the acquittal of the self-appointed “neighbourhood watchman” George Zimmerman, who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. After the acquittal, the Black civil rights activist Alicia Garza used the phrase “Our lives matter” in a post on Facebook. Inspired by this post, her friend and fellow activist Patrisse Cullors first used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. A movement was born. One year later in Ferguson, police shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black 18-year-old. In response to the protests and unrest, the US National Guard was deployed to Ferguson. Since then, there have unfortunately been more and more and more similar cases of deadly violence against Black US-Americans.
Black Lives Matter is more than just an organisation. The decentralised movement has mobilised supporters around the world. From the National Football League in the USA to the Bundesliga in Germany, the movement has even had an impact on the world of sports. In the middle of 2020, the movement reached its high point. At the end of May, police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. The police officer sat with his knee on Floyd’s neck as Floyd yelled “I can’t breathe” and called for his mother. The excruciating 8 minutes and 46 seconds that led to Floyd’s death were caught on film and sent shockwaves around the world, igniting a global civil rights movement. The days after Floyd’s death saw massive demonstrations, both in the USA and around the world, with the June 6 perhaps becoming the largest day of protest ever in the USA.
No matter the result of the US presidential election on November 3, 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement will likely continue with actions and protests for some time to come. But what effect will the movement have on the elections themselves – both for the office of President and for Congress?
Trump has repeatedly criticised the Black Lives Matter movement, interchangeably calling them a symbol of hate, anarchists, rioters and Marxists. Those close to him claim the protests are funded by George Soros, a common antisemitic dog whistle. The Black Lives Matter movement has thus become a projection of many of Trump’s real and imagined enemies. Simultaneously, Trump claims to have “done more for the Black Community than any President since Abraham Lincoln” (President Lincoln ended slavery in the USA). Needless to say, this is demonstrably untrue.
However, that’s not to say that Trump’s Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, is the candidate of choice for the Black Lives Matter movement. Most people know Biden as Obama’s Vice President – a card Biden is often keen to play in order to rally up the Black vote. Biden has had some success with this tactic already: it helped him beat Sanders in the primaries to secure the Democratic nomination. But Biden was likely picked by Obama as his “Veep” for his credentials as a white and mainstream political figure, balancing Obama’s Blackness and relative outsider progressive status. Biden’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement has also been mixed: for example, he has also condemned recent protests in Philadelphia, where police shot and killed a Black man, perhaps in an attempt to appear tough on crime.
Biden made a strategically wise move in choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate. Harris, whose father is from Jamaica and whose mother is from India, could make history, not just as the first PoC to be Vice President, but also as the first woman. Biden’s pick of Harris as his running mate is a clear sign of the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. But Harris is also the self-described former “top cop” of California, where she served as attorney general from 2011-2017, and for which she has previously been heavily criticised by the left and by the Black Lives Matter movement.
While neither the Republican nor the Democrat ticket is an ideal choice for the Black Lives Matter movement, Biden is likely to profit from its strong anti-Trump stance – if Black people go to the polls in high numbers. Black voters in many battleground states are voting in larger numbers than usual this year, although many Black voters fear their vote ultimately will not be counted.
Congress and local elections
On Tuesday, November 3, 2020, all 435 seats of the House of Representatives are up for election as well as 35 of the 100 seats in the US Senate are up for election. There are already representatives at the federal level whose political activism moved them to run for office, such as Representative Lucy McBath. McBath decided to stand for election after a man shot her son, complaining about the “loud music” he was playing. The movement has also affected local politics. In Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd was killed, the City Council voted to unanimously voted to disband their police force, although they have hit numerous roadblocks along the way.
After the vote
In the 2020 elections, the Black Lives Matter movement might play a key role, not only in mobilising voters to cast their ballots for Trump’s opponent, but also in leading demonstrations demanding that all the votes be counted. Trump has clearly pressured the Supreme Court to stop vote-counting after election day, although voting-by-mail may lead to a delay in results and the US has never had final results on election day. Should Trump declare victory on election night, massive pro-democracy protests could apply enough pressure to ensure all votes are counted, an inverse of 2000’s Brooks Brothers Riot. After a summer of demonstrations, the Black Lives Matter movement has laid the groundwork, should new protests be needed.
No matter who wins the election, the conditions that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement will largely remain the same. After all, it was during the Obama presidency that Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were killed and that the movement was born. Even if Biden wins, the structural racism in the USA and within its heavily armed police force will not disappear overnight. But four more years of Trump would be a political disaster for the Black civil rights movement in the USA that would likely lead to unprecedented violence. Whoever emerges victorious after election day, it’s still only the beginning for the Black Lives Matter movement. For them, it’s not about winning or losing: it’s about surviving systemic racism that has had a deadly toll on the Black population of the USA.